Autonocars: Pending self-driving vehicle legislation could boost Tech research

Daily Mining Gazette/Garrett Neese U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, left, and Jeff Naber, director of Michigan Technological University’s Advanced Power System Research Center, look at a testing facility in the center in March. Peters toured the center to learn about Tech’s research into driverless vehicles.

HOUGHTON — Testing of autonomous vehicles, such as that being done at Michigan Technological University, could get a boost with legislation working its way through Congress.

The American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in October. U.S. Sen.

Gary Peters, D-Mich., sponsored the bill along with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

“This allows testing to occur on a bigger scale on public roads and highways,” Peters said. “This’ll be important for research centers like you have at Michigan Tech. The future of the industry will be these advanced self-driving technologies, but for them to be available on a broad scale, they need to be tested more widely than they’re being tested.”

The bill includes updates to federal motor vehicle safety standards, which were designed with human-driven vehicles. In one example, Peters said, testing currently requires a car to have a steering wheel and a brake pedal, neither of which would be necessary in a fully automated car.

In March, Peters visited Tech’s Advanced Power System Research Center to get informed of Tech’s research and development efforts into autonomous vehicles.

Jeff Naber, director of the center, said the bill will enable the advancement of autonomous vehicle functions.

“As the technology develops, there needs to be a path for technological development,” Naber said, “and we need to plug in with our industry partners to support that development.”

Tech is testing a fleet of eight Chevrolet Volts under the Department of Energy’s NEXTCAR (NEXT-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles) program. That three-year program is focused on optimizing vehicle performance for energy consumption, as well as smoothly integrating autonomous functions into vehicles.

Testing began in January for the program,

“We have specific roads that we mark out as test cycles,” Naber said. “Those test cycles include hour-long test-drives starting at the airport, going through Houghton and Hancock making sure we’ve hit as many signals as we can.”

The AV START Act also adds cybersecurity protection, improves mobility for people with disabilities and calls for consumer education of self-driving vehicles.

Peters said because of the speed of technological breakthroughs, the cybersecurity measure is focused more on information-sharing rather than a particular standard. Each manufacturer would be required to make and maintain a plan for identifying and reducing cybersecurity risks to vehicles. Peters said companies are already using sources such as Auto-ISAC (Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center), a public-private partnership assessing threats and and developing best practices for connected and self-driving vehicles.

“The industry is very focused on this,” he said. “The industry knows with these connected cars there are vulnerabilities for cyberattacks, and they’ll have to take extraordinary precautions to know that these vehicles are secure.”

The bill was passed out of committee unanimously. Peters said he has not heard of any opposition to the bill.

“It’s not a question of if it’ll be on the Senate floor but when,” he said. “When it gets on, we think it’ll pass.”

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